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15 Years Old Photos of Japan

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15 Years Old Photos of Japan

On 30 March 2007, exactly 15 years ago today, I posted the very first article on Old Photos of Japan.

It is very hard to believe that it is already fifteen years since the launch. My love for the images that I share here goes even further back.

I first encountered old photographs of Japan in a feature about the 20th century in The Daily Yomiuri of January 1, 1999. Although the article was about the 20th century, it featured six photos of 19th century Japan. This was the first time that I became aware of such photographs and I immediately fell in love with them.

By that time I had lived in Japan for more than sixteen years, and it had always bothered me that in most Japanese cities you hardly feel any connection with the past. I was born and grew up in Europe, where city centers are filled with centuries-old buildings. You are surrounded by history.

These photographs somehow filled that gap for me. But at the time I did not yet consider collecting and researching them.

The Daily Yomiuri of January 1, 1999
This feature about the 20th century in The Daily Yomiuri of January 1, 1999, got me first hooked on vintage photographs of Japan.

Fast forward eight years to January 3, 2007. Once again New Year. I was doing hatsumōde at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto. In a small souvenir shop I found a gorgeous book with the same hand colored vintage photographs, all of them of Kyoto.

I immediately purchased the book and decided that my New Year’s resolution for that year would be to figure out how I could purchase these photographs.

Five days later I purchased my very first vintage photograph, a studio shot of a vegetable vendor.

70122-0003 - Japanese vegetable vendor, 1880s
A studio photo of a vegetable vendor wearing a mino (蓑, straw raincoat) and a sugegasa (笠菅, conical hat). Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, 1880s.

By the end of the year I had purchased almost 1400 photographs and postcards. I had gone a bit overboard…

Now my collection consists of many thousands, including some of the photographs that I first encountered in the Yomiuri feature article. I am proud to say that the versions in my collection are all of substantially better quality than the images in the newspaper.

80626-0005 - Ginza Streetcar
Horse-drawn streetcar at Nihonbashidori 4-chome in Tokyo's Ginza district, 1880s. Kimbei Kusakabe, hand colored albumen print.

The collection has gone way beyond vintage photography. It now also features old money, hikifune advertising posters, ukiyoe woodblock prints, school books, art postcards, and lots of other visual materials of Japan. The collection as a whole tells the story of old Japan.

101012-0003 - Scene from 47 Ronin
Print from a history textbook for elementary students showing a scene from the revenge of the Forty-Seven Rōnin also known as the Akō Rōshi. Yamato Zakura (國畫史帖大和桜), 1935 (Showa 10).

Within months after purchasing my first photo, I started Old Photos of Japan. Three years later, I started MeijiShowa, my site for licensing the images in my collection. These days the site also represents other collections.

Early this year, I also started an online shop, Old Japan Shop. Here you can purchase museum quality art prints of these rare images.

These initiatives help a little to support this project.

Art postcard of two Japanese women in kimono shaking hands at the station
Early 20th century art postcard of two Japanese women in kimono shaking hands at the station. Tairin Asaka, ca. 1900s. Color lithograph.

I spent most of last year to completely redesign the site. All images were re-edited and re-uploaded. Many of the almost 300 articles were rewritten. This January, the site was relaunched with a new concept, to be your personal museum for Japan’s visual heritage from the 1850s through 1960s.

Finding, acquiring, scanning, restoring, researching and conserving these vintage images, and making the imagery and research freely available online, is time-consuming work that requires much money and effort.

I do this without charging for access, selling user data, or running ads.

If you are enjoying these articles, please consider supporting Old Photos of Japan with a regular amount each month. Or become a volunteer.

Please help ensure that this important heritage will not be lost and forgotten.

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